The iPad productivity debate

Sections: Features, iPad, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

submit to reddit

In a follow up comment on my column Monday “A Mac in your pocket?” reader ViewRoyal wrote, “Some people equate the desktop OS experience with ‘productivity’, but Apple’s iOS allows just as much productivity as OS X… it just approaches it differently.”

As one who does production work on an iPad every day, I beg to differ. While it is possible to be productive on an iOS device to a degree, the level of productivity attainable is simply not as high as with a Mac or Windows PC. For some tasks it’s not even close, or not possible at all.


Concrete example; I write for several Websites, including this one, where editorial content is posted via WordPress. If there is a practical, efficient way to upload in-line images to WordPress, it has thus far eluded me. I don’t claim to be an expert at this sort of thing, but workarounds I’ve seen suggested sound tedious and inconsistent with efficient productivity. Therefore, this issue is literally a show-stopper.

With a Mac or Windows PC, one just chooses and edits an image in a Web compatible document format and, using the WordPress posting interface, navigates to and selects the image file, uploads it, and inserts it in the article. This usually takes about half a dozen mouse clicks and executes in a few seconds.

The reason for the iOS failure in this context is lack of user access to a file system directory, an aspect of the mobile OS ViewRoyal commends, observing that file-centric desktop operating systems and applications that run on them “require much more resources (storage, RAM, CPU) than modern mobile operating systems and apps. Mobile operatings systems are NOT file-centric. They are task-centric. With iOS you don’t need to ‘file’ away the things you are working on, so that you can find and use them later.”

I don’t disagree on the technical point. My iPad is gloriously economical with computing horsepower. However, that doesn’t help me when I need to upload some photos to WordPress. I actually do most on my online research, direct composition, and basic editing on the iPad these days, but for final editing, proofing, markup, and posting of anything more complex than simple plain text, I’m pretty much obliged to switch to my Macs in order to get my work done in with efficient dispatch.

Happily, Dropbox makes shifting platforms in mid-task pretty simple and transparent, and the new Handoff feature in OS X Yosemite holds promise of making it even more seamless…eventually. However, Dropbox conveniently supports my entire production fleet of mostly middle-aged to elderly Apple hardware, ranging from a couple of 14-year-old Power PC PowerBooks running OS X 10.4 Tiger to a three-year-old iPad 2 and a six month old MacBook Air.


Another major productivity bottleneck with the iOS is its inability to display two or more open windows side-by-side. For the sort of stuff I do a lot, cutting back and forth between two apps using what jokingly passes for “multitasking” in the iOS is a major and frustrating slowdown.

Something like this would be nice (mockup in iWriters).

Multiwindow iOS mockup

On my Macs, I will typically have nine or even more desktop Spaces configured, usually between one and two dozen apps open, including three or four Web browsers, each with an array of open tabs, plus often a dozen or more open text or image documents scattered among the various Finder Spaces. Being able to work that way is much quicker, slicker, and more efficient than the best I can do with the iOS.

Consequently, on an empirical, actuarial basis, I must dispute ViewRoyal’s contention that: “The smaller (in data size) mobile operating system and apps, get the same work done as on the desktop computer, but without the necessity for a resource-intensive Intel processor, tons of RAM, and terabytes of storage.”

The fact is, at this stage of its development, the iOS does not support getting the same work done as on a desktop computer, at least in a timely and efficient manner. Someday it may be given the wherewithal to compete with desktop OSs, but that day has not arrived yet, and will not with iOS 8, although there are rumors of two-window multitasking to be introduced with an also rumored iPad Pro in early 2015.

If/when that happens, I’ll be delighted to use an iPad for an even greater proportion of production work than I’m able to now. I don’t regard the iPad, which I admire greatly, as a “toy,” but as a serious tool that makes my workday easier and more enjoyable within its limitations. However, it has a fair way to go yet before it’s a no rationalization or excuses match for my Macs—even the older ones—in terms of productivity.

Print Friendly
  • SallyE

    Hey Charles,
    You hit the nail on the head. There are just some things that stop your productivity on the iPad. WordPress is one of them. Its own iOS app is worthless, but I have found a way to get my photos in there with a DropBox source selection. But that doesn’t make writing, especially correcting, or formatting any good.

    On the other hand, I think that you might actually learn some different, and probably just as efficient iOS productivity methods, given time. It’s just not something you want to do when you’re pressed for time. Me either.

    And you bring home the point at a time when I was torn about buying a new Mac when the old one started showing its age, and I debated whether my trusty iPad could hold its own in the business world. As a person in the business of showing people how to use their iPads in business, it was a very hard decision, but I bought the Mac yesterday.

    • Charles Moore

      Hi SallyE,

      Thanks for the observations.

      I try to learn new and useful stuff every day, and I indeed am much more efficient productivity-wise on the iPad than I was three years ago, and as you say, new techniques will no doubt continue to progressively close the productivity gap with the desktop OSs.

      However, at this point in time, and for the foreseeable future, if I was obliged to have but one computer, it would have to be a MacBook.

      Enjoy your new Mac.